General Semantics: Sound Thinking for Everyday Life
“Sound thinking” is a vague term that can be interpreted
in various ways. An operational definition
of that term, which will be used in
this chapter, is the following: Sound
thinking is a method of human cognition
that tends to make foresight as accurate
as hindsight. It allows individuals
to more efficiently and effectively
solve problems of everyday living.
How important is sound thinking to the public? Ken Keyes,
Jr., a student of general semantics
and an author of several self-help books,
conducted a nation-wide survey to find
out. It consisted of two questions:1
Which of the following would
you most hate to have people say about
a. You do not win friends easily.
b. You cannot
c. You have
trouble influencing people.
d. One day your
pants fell down when your arms were
loaded with packages.
5. Why did you
make that choice?
A vast majority of the survey’s respondents, 72.5 percent,
thought it most important to be known
as a clear thinker. (For what it’s
worth, 6.5 percent chose sartorial security
as most significant.) The following
are some reasons they gave for this
Men prefer women who are reasonable
in meeting problems of everyday life.
Women prefer men who demonstrate excellent
Men and women who think clearly can
achieve greater popularity. They are
looked up to; their ideas are considered
“worth listening to”; they
are invited to analyze the ideas and
plans of other people.
The ability to think clearly and maturely
is an important step in the avoidance
of worry and unhappiness…and the
achievement of peace of mind.
Clear thinking (sound thinking) is clearly a useful attribute.
In order to become better at it, this
chapter offers a variety of general
semantics (GS) strategies and techniques.
They are presented in the context of
overcoming ten blocks to sound thinking.
Ten Blocks to Sound Thinking - with
General Semantics "Correctives"
1. Allness Attitudes2
—“If you’ve known one Arab, Jew, Black, Hispanic,
etc., you’ve known them all.”
—“I understand that in its entirety.”
—“Let me tell you all about what’s going on in
the Middle East.”
No one can know all about anything. This statement may seem obvious,
but every day people say or imply that
they do know it all. Individuals who
speak like this are demonstrating “allness
attitudes.” They think they know
what it is impossible to know—everything
about a particular topic.
Allness attitudes are quite common and relatively easy to spot
in others. But detecting them in ourselves
is a more difficult task. Tougher still
is coming up with ideas to keep us flexible
and away from allness thinking. Fortunately,
there are GS tools and formulations
that can help us to achieve these goals.
For example, Alfred Korzybski’s
admonition that the map is not the
territory (what we say or think about something, “our verbal
maps,” does not cover all there
is to know about that subject, “the
Science tells us that we can’t know all about the world or
anything in it. Therefore, our “mental
maps” are always incomplete. Understanding
that it is impossible to discern and
describe every aspect of the territory
(events in the world) allows us to be
more open to acquiring new data and
new knowledge on various subjects.
Indexing items (a GS notion that involves examining individual
cases within a larger category) is another
way to overcome allness attitudes.
instance, John may say, “I hate
sports.” But “sports,”
in the way John is using it, is a very
broad term. If we examine it more closely
we see that sport1 (tennis) is not sport2
(bowling), is not sport3 (chess), etc.
Has John tried all sports? Probably
not. Indexing can help individuals to
find differences that may make a difference.
Employing words like “to me,” “I think,”
and “it seems,” when making
statements, is one more approach for
blocking allness tendencies. These expressions
make it clear that our observations
and opinions have definite limits—e.g.,
“To me, pizza is the most delicious
food.” “I think New York
City is the best place to live.”
“It seems that it is going to
Finally, we can follow Korzybski’s advice to add a silent
“etc.” to our thinking to
remind us that there is always more
that can be learned, more that can be
2. "Knee-jerk" Reactions
If someone insults you, do you immediately fire back with a slur
or epithet of your own? Have you ever
gotten into an argument over some “ism”
(e.g., “feminism,” “liberalism,”
“capitalism”) based on your
uncritical assumptions about that particular
word? If you answered yes to either
of these questions you are allowing
words to use you, rather than choosing
to behave and react in a mature manner.
Words are not the things they represent.
Being labeled an “idiot”
doesn’t make you an idiot. But
you act idiotically when you don’t
take time to figure out an appropriate
response to situations and instead let
others push your emotional buttons.
Why do humans act impulsively? We do so because we have been conditioned
to respond that way. Like Pavlov’s
dogs, we automatically behave in certain
ways under certain conditions. Political
propaganda, as well as commercial advertising,
is premised on the idea that individuals
will respond to slogans, names, designs,
etc., in the same way that dogs can
be induced to respond to bells and buzzers.
But we do not have to unthinkingly react to stimuli. We can learn
to delay our reactions long enough to
investigate conditions and respond to
them in a thoughtful manner. This can
have a far more salutary effect in situations
than reacting precipitously, as the
following story demonstrates.
A hunter lived with an infant in a cabin, guarded by his dog. One
day the hunter returned from the fields
and saw the cradle overturned and the
baby nowhere in sight. The room was
a mess. The dog had blood all over his
muzzle. The hunter, enraged, shot the
dog. He then found the baby, unharmed
under the bed, and a dead wolf in the
Many people take for granted the human ability to delay one’s
reaction. But this is not true for students
of general semantics. They know the
capacity to delay reacting, and bring
our higher brain functions into play,
is a key characteristic that distinguishes
our species from the rest of the animal
3. Either-or Thinking
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a careful observer
of his culture and its language structure.
From his observations he derived what
has come to be known as the “laws
of thought”—tools of logic
that are very much with us today. One
of those laws is “the law of the
excluded middle”—A thing
is either “A” or “not
The law of the excluded middle encourages us to think that every
question can be answered in terms of
“either-or.” The structure
of the English language also pushes
us in that direction. With its many
polarizing terms (good/bad, hot/cold,
tall/short, thin/fat, etc.), English
supports reasoning through extremes
rather than with gradations.
Either-or thinking keeps us from seeing the great diversity in
the world. For example, individuals
do not come in two varieties: tall or
short. If we lined up everyone in the
United States and arranged them according
to height, at one end of the line there
would be professional basketball players,
at the other end, midgets. Between these
two groups would be the vast majority
Most things we encounter are more accurately mapped by a statistical
distribution rather than through either-or
terms. That idea can be seen on a bell
curve of normal distribution. If you
plot examples from everyday life, like
days above and below 100 degrees, IQ,
height, weight, etc., on a graph, it
is the middle range that has the most
distribution. Either-or comparisons
show up at the two extreme ends of the
To get past either-or thinking, general semantics recommends using
a multi-valued approach. This method involves examining more than
just two alternatives. For example,
rather than narrowing down your options
to “I’ll either go out to
the movies or stay home and watch TV,”
a multi-valued approach allows you to
brainstorm additional ideas—attend
a play, read a book, go out to dinner,
walk around the neighborhood, etc. Having
more choices usually offers a better
chance at coming up with a good resolution
4. Rigid Evaluations
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus asserted over two thousand years
ago that one can not step twice in the
same river. Science has confirmed this
process view of existence, and has demonstrated
that everything in the world is constantly
changing—sometimes slowly and
sometimes very quickly. That includes
Individuals change over time as new facts present themselves and
new circumstances emerge. Are you the
same person today that you were a year
ago, five years ago, ten years ago?
Do you look exactly identical? Has your
behavior stayed the same? It’s
comforting to think that the world and
the people in it are invariable from
day to day. It makes for easy predictability.
But life is process, so change must
Dating (a GS tool that involves attaching dates to our evaluations
of people, ideas, and things) can help
us stay attuned to the fact that we
live in a changing world. For
example, Joe (who is working out this
month) is not Joe (sans workout, last
month), technology (2006) is not technology
(1976), cars (of today) are not cars
(of yesteryear). Dating shows we live
in a “restless universe,”
where everything mutates over time.
If life is dynamic, must the positions we take on various issues
be set in stone? Is it a weakness to
change our minds? Neil Postman, a prominent
educator and proponent of general semantics,
didn’t think so. Postman (1967)
published a book titled Teaching
as a Subversive Activity. Postman (1979) published
another book, Teaching as a Conversing
Activity. In the introduction
to that work he wrote, “The Earth
has gone around the sun twelve times
since the publication of our best known
book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I do not seem to be facing in the same direction as I was in
1967. Frankly, I do not know if I have
turned or everything else has. But many
of the arguments which then seemed merely
opposite now seem acutely apposite…”3
There are times when consistency is a virtue. We want airline pilots
to consistently be alert when they are
flying us to our destinations; baseball
players have to consistently get on
base to bat over .300; and consistency
is the hallmark of our judicial system—rulings
are based on precedent.
But, to quote Emerson, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin
of little minds.” It can keep
us from taking risks and expanding our
knowledge in new areas. Slavishly following
customs and rules can hinder us from
seeing and making changes that might
be beneficial. A hallmark of maturity
is to know when to be consistent and
when to be flexible.
5. Projection Problems
a knockout.” “That painting
is not art.” “King Kong was a great movie.”
When individuals make statements like
these they are telling us precious little
about what they are describing. They
are saying, instead, something about
themselves. They are projecting their
ideas of what they consider to be “beautiful,”
“art,” and “outstanding
cinema.” They are confusing opinions
To demonstrate awareness that our thoughts or comments are products
of our internal condition, rather than
reports of external “reality,”
general semantics advocates the use
of qualifying expressions like “it
seems to me,” “as I see
“from my point of view,”
etc. These phrases signal to others
that we are transmitting personal observations,
not divine truths.
The word “is” can impede our “projection awareness.”
That’s because when we use “is”
to link a noun and an adjective modifying
that noun, we may unconsciously project.
For example, when we say “She
is lazy,” or “He is smart,”
we are suggesting that “laziness”
is found in her or that “smartness”
is found in him. That contradicts what
is really going on: we are projecting
our opinions concerning “laziness”
and “smartness” onto another
person. Qualifying our responses underscores
that reality—e.g., “She
seems lazy to me;” “From
my point of view, he is smart.”
6. "Useless" and Poorly Structured Questions
Asking “useful” questions is an essential part of the
scientific method. Such questions can
be answered on the basis of systematic
observation—they can be tested.
“What biological processes caused
my birth?” is an example of a
“useful” question. “Why
was I born?” is an illustration
of a “useless” one. (It
is useless because there is no way to
ascertain any particular answer as relevant
“Useless” questions can upset us emotionally. This
is shown in the following story.
Marvin applied to three highly rated colleges that he very much
wanted to attend. Their admission committees
rejected him. Depressed over the rejections,
Marvin asked himself a useless question,
“Why am I such a failure?”,
to which he responded: “I guess
I was born under an unlucky star.”
”God must be punishing me for
something that I did.” “My
mother must have walked under a ladder
when she was pregnant.” Mulling
over these “impossible-to-prove”
answers led Marvin to become even more
depressed and to not work at applying
to colleges that were taking students
with his GPA and SAT scores.
Had Marvin asked himself “useful” questions such as
”What colleges would most likely
accept me with my school record?”
and “Where can I obtain their
applications?” he would have increased
his chances of getting into college
and moving on with his life. Useful
questions focus on taking constructive
action rather than wallowing in self-pity.
The way questions are phrased sets the terminology and structure
of their answers. For example, the question
“What is the way to do ‘x’?”
may elicit the response “The way
to do x is…” (which implies
that there are no other ways to do x).
And the question “Am I a good
person or a bad person?” may produce
the reply “Of course, you’re
a good person” (which suggests
that the question you asked was a reasonable
one that could only be answered in two
As children, when the teacher asked us questions in the classroom,
many of us were conditioned to search
for answers. A better education would
have had us first think about the questions.
We live in a process world. But our language does not accurately
reflect this fact because it allows
us to “split” with words
what cannot be split in the world “out
there.” For example, we talk about
the “mind” and “body”
as if they were separate entities. But
that’s not correct. Can there
be a mind without a body? Lacking a
body, there would be no mind. And without
the mind, what would the body be? Moreover,
the chemical processes of the body affect
the mind—that’s why antidepressants
work. And the opposite is true. Our
mental state can influence our physical
condition—worry can aggravate
ulcers and other bodily ailments.
General semantics labels our tendency to use words in isolation
as elementalism. We practice elementalism when we let the word “flower”
make us forget that the “real”
flower is an ever-changing process that
entails air, light, water, and soil.
When we talk about a flower, using words,
we should not fool ourselves into thinking
we are fully describing a real flower.
Elementalism is involved when we seek the cause of something,
unconsciously assuming that there is
only one cause. For example, the cause of juvenile
delinquency, the cure for cancer, the way to raise children, etc. But most problems
in life do not have single antecedents.
Causation is typically multi-faceted.
Elementalism is firmly established in our language and when we
use words, its effects cannot totally
be avoided. But there are GS ideas that
can mitigate its power. For example,
we can use hyphens to link words that
are not, by themselves, adequate descriptions
of “reality.” (Einstein,
recognizing the “one-ness”
of space and time, created the notion
of “space-time.” Other non-elementalistic
terms include “psycho-biological,”
We can also place quotes around words
that involve related ideas—e.g.,
“thoughts” and “feelings.”
(Mental and emotional states do not
exist in isolation. They influence each
other.) And we can add a silent “etc.”
to our thinking—e.g., “mind,
etc.,” “thoughts, etc.,”
“feelings, etc.” (Adding
“etc.” indicates that there
is always more that can be learned,
more that can be said.)
8. Jumping to Wrong Conclusions
John arrives late to school, a factual event that can be observed,
verified, and proven. His teacher makes
an inference based on this fact—“I
suppose John overslept.” The teacher
then makes a judgment, based on his
inference—“John thinks he
can get with anything.” When the
matter is investigated it turns out
that John was late to school because
he was mugged.
We must make assumptions and inferences. It is not possible to
observe, check, and test everything.
But to make accurate inferences, rather
than those that are false-to-fact, general
semantics suggests that we take into
consideration the variety of possible
causes of an event and the variety of
reactions we are capable of. To be more
confident of our inferences, GS also
counsels that we base them on observations
and that they converge—a number
of inferences point to the same conclusion.
The English language can lead us to confuse facts with inferences
and assumptions. Laura Lee points out,
“In English we have no grammatical
constructions, verb tenses, or moods
to distinguish what we have experienced
from what we have assumed. It is easy
to say and think we know when we are
only guessing; the same words may describe
or infer, depending on the context.
We learn to perceive and think with
To avoid fact/inference confusion, Irving J. Lee, the author of
Language Habits in Human Affairs and other books on general semantics, proposes the following
Statement of fact
* Made after observation or experience
* Is confined to what one observes
* Only a limited number can be made
* Represents a high degree
of probability, is close to certainty Statement of inference
* Made anytime—before,
during, or after observation
* Goes beyond what one observes
* Can make an unlimited
number in any situation
* Represents some degree of
9. Relying on Common Sense
Most of us know the expression “When you assume you make
an ass out of you and me.” The problem with this cliché is that we
must assume. Assumptions drive human
behavior. The trick is to be aware of
our assumptions and to question, test,
and revise them when necessary.
This is what scientists do when they use the scientific method.
A scientist will start out with an assumption
about something, refine it through questioning
into a hypothesis, test the hypothesis,
analyze the results, and make revisions
if needed. In science, assumptions are
open to question. They are not taken
Taking assumptions for granted is what happens in common sense,
an outlook that is certainly quite common
but one that does not necessarily make
a lot of sense—e.g., common sense
can result in opposite platitudes for
the same situation:
(a) “He who hesitates is lost.”/“Look before
you leap.” (b) “Go with
the flow.”/“Swim against
the tide.” (c) “A penny
saved is a penny earned.”/“Penny
wise and pound foolish.”
Unexamined assumptions can be dangerous to your health. This is
illustrated in the following story:6
A doctor was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call
from a man for whom he had done some
medical work a few years before.
“Doctor,” said the excited man, “please come
over right away. My wife is in great
pain and I’m sure it’s her
replied the doctor, “I don’t
think that’s it. I’ll drop
around the first thing in the morning.
Don’t worry. It’s probably
you’ve got to come right away
now. I’m positive it’s appendicitis,”
protested the alarmed husband.
“Oh come, Mr.
Johnson,” the doctor said somewhat
irritably. “I took out your wife’s
appendix almost two years ago. You know
as well as I do that that couldn’t
true enough,” said the husband.
“But I’ve got a different
Employing a scientific attitude, using “uncommon sense,”
can bring our assumptions into awareness
and lead us to examine and revise them.
GS experts Susan and Bruce Kodish suggest
when faced with a difficult problem
we use uncommon sense and ask questions
such as: What am I assuming about this
situation? Can I assume something different?
What will happen if I do? Is what I’m
assuming here so? How can I test this?
What observations can I make that may
show that this isn’t so?7
10. Labeling and Category Errors
What’s the difference between a “freedom fighter”
and a “terrorist”? Were
the victims at the Abu Ghraib prison
in Iraq subjected to “abuse”
or “torture”? Are organizations
that comment on news reporting “media
watchdog groups,” or are they
“pressure groups”? Don’t
look to the dictionary to answer these
questions. Their answers depend on human
General semantics notes that strictly speaking, words don’t
“mean;” people do. The physicist
P. W. Bridgman put it this way, “Never
ask ‘What does word X mean?’
but ask instead, ‘What do I mean
when I say word X?’ or ‘What
do you mean when you say word X?’”8 Words do not have “one true meaning.”
For the 500 most used words in the English
language, the Oxford Dictionary lists 14,070 meanings.9
Words mean different things to different people (the field of Contract
Law is based on this principle); words
mean different things at different times
(e.g., In 1896, nine men on the U. S.
Supreme Court said that separate but
equal facilities for blacks and whites
are constitutional. In 1954, nine different
men said, in effect, that separate and equal are opposites); words
mean different things in different contexts
(e.g., He beat the drum with a stick.
Beats me. The reporter has the mayor on his beat. He beat Joe at chess).
We use words to categorize and label people and events. But the
categories we formulate do not exist
“out there,” in the “real
world.” They are created in our
heads and expressed in language. The
following are some GS observations on
* How we label or categorize a person will depend upon our purpose,
our projections, and our evaluations;
yet the person does not change just
because we change the label or category.
(When I taught in the New York City
school system in the 1970s, there were
students who were labeled “children
of retarded mental development.”
That term became thought of as pejorative
so new nomenclature was devised, “special
education students.” If someday
that designation becomes problematic,
perhaps because it is deemed too broad
a descriptor, another tag will emerge
to delineate “children who do
not seem to learn what educators think
* Things are not the same because they carry the same label—e.g.,
Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Jackson
Pollack, and Andy Warhol may all be
* Each classification tells us something about the way in which
an object is considered (by someone)
to be similar to certain other objects;
each tells us something about the ways
in which it is considered different
from certain other objects. (Fuel economy
guidelines currently set by the federal
government classify SUVs as “light
trucks,” not “passenger
cars.” Because of this classification,
current federal regulations allow SUVs
to have far worse fuel economy than
other vehicles. If Ralph Nader were
president, I suspect SUVs would be classified
Categorizing and labeling people is quite common on talk radio.
(“You believe that because you’re
a liberal!” “That’s
what I thought a conservative would
say!” “What do you expect
from a reactionary!”) Such classifying
does not provide enlightenment on political
matters. Rather, it exemplifies a malady
that is rampant today in American politics,
“hardening of the categories.”
This condition can be successfully treated
with the ideas and formulations of general
semantics.11 But for that to happen,
individuals need to apply the cure.
1. Kenneth S. Keyes, Jr., How to Develop Your Thinking Ability (New York: McGraw
Hill, 1950), iv, v.
2. The term “allness attitudes” comes from Robert R.
Potter, Making Sense: Exploring Semantics and Critical Thinking (New York: Globe,
3. Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity (New York: Delacorte,
4. Kenneth G. Johnson, General Semantics: An Outline Survey, Third Revised Edition
(Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics, 2004), 12.
5. Ibid., 13.
6. Keyes, How to Develop Your Thinking Ability, 111, 112.
7. Susan Presby Kodish and Bruce I. Kodish, Drive Yourself Sane:
Using the Uncommon Sense of General
Semantics, Revised Second Edition
(Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing,
8. Johnson, General Semantics: An Outline Survey, 21.
9. Ibid., 21.
10. Ibid., 9.
11. See Irving J. Lee, Language Habits in Human Affairs, Second Edition (Concord,
CA: International Society for General
Semantics, 1994), and S. I. Hayakawa
and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in
Thought and Action, Fifth Edition (New
York: Harcourt Harvest, 1990).
- Hayakawa, S. I. and Alan R. Hayakawa. Language in Thought
and Action, Fifth Edition.
- New York: Harcourt Harvest, 1990.
- Johnson, Kenneth G. General Semantics: An Outline Survey, Third Revised Edition.
- Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics, 2004.
- Johnson, Wendell. People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal
- Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics, 2002.
- Keyes, Kenneth S., Jr. How to Develop Your Thinking Ability. New York: McGraw
- Kodish, Susan Presby and Bruce I. Kodish. Drive Yourself Sane:
Using the Uncommon Sense of General
Semantics, Revised Second Edition.
Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing,
- Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity, Fifth Edition. Englewood,
NJ: Institute of General Semantics,
- Lee, Irving J. Language Habits in Human Affairs, Second Edition. Concord,
- International Society for General Semantics, 1994.
- Postman, Neil. Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk. New York: Delacorte,
- Postman, Neil. Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New York: Delacorte,
- Potter, Robert R. Making Sense: Exploring Semantics and Critical
Thinking. New York: Globe, 1974.
- About Martin H. LEVINSON
Ten Ways to Prevent International Conflicts
Chapter 11 in Sensible Thinking for